The Neon Demon, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn│We’ve all been subjected to the unimaginable question of would you rather give up food or sex– a no-win situation that strikes a similar chord of hesitancy to Sophie’s choice. However, we are rarely asked which we would rather be, a delectable dessert or a form of foreplay. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon has no doubt chosen to be the latter, for it sugarcoats little and voraciously indulges in its mouthwatering sexual explicitness. Underscored by Cliff Martinez’s pulsating soundtrack (the only highlight of an otherwise monotonous 117 minutes), the introductory visual orgy of textures and tones– ranging from shimmering lilac, to metallic fuchsia, and ice-cold turquoise– marks its foray into the realm of a deliriously artificial fashion industry. Its decadence solicits the necessary headspace for audiences to be unflinchingly (if not expectedly) induced by the theatricality of a mannequin-like sixteen-year-old sprawled out on a silver couch, drenched in what appears to be her own blood.
“Am I staring?” asks Ruby–a makeup artist whose name matches her hair color, and who speaks on behalf of the entire audience when fully disclosing the stupor to which she has been enslaved. Jesse, a.k.a. the new kid on the block, possesses an indescribable quality that captures anyone and everyone’s attention. She is both muse and nemesis in this dog-eat-dog world of wavering, disposable, and interchangeable beauty, where “bionic women” are like those annoying friends who overstay their welcome. But the film’s obsession with the pristine yet surreal electricity of Los Angeles struggles to keep its distance from the very seductions that woe Jesse into the tragic world of insatiable lust. That Jesse’s ‘IT’ factor is her virginity strives for nothing new, and relies heavily on an all-too familiar misogynist formula that adds nothing to the rhetoric of female desire nor of feminine desirability. The film is ridden with missed opportunities where, on paper, a sleazy hotel manager, a sketchy photographer, and a sadistic fashion designer, provide grounds for if not critique than at least an open conversation about the violence towards women’s bodies and the power that these male authority figures hold over them. Unfortunately, The Neon Demon does nothing of the sort. Instead, it chooses to follow the long-standing tradition of dissecting the poor deer in the headlights rather than turn around to see who is threatening her from behind the wheel.
What this clichéd metaphor for L.A. newcomers excludes is the fact that deer travel in packs– that in the shadow is a swarm of envious peers that would kill to be subjected to the predatory gaze spearheaded by the isolating headlight. It is perhaps more condemning that in welcoming this newfound attention, Jesse becomes so self-aware and self-absorbed by her own image that any violence inflicted upon her thereafter is her own fault. Reiterating her mother’s prophesy, Jesse is dangerous, tantalizing, and therefore her own worst enemy. Her inner demons (neon or otherwise) come in a slew of shapes and forms including narcissism, jealousy, misread signals, rejection, embarrassment, revenge, and unexplained cannibalism. “If you can’t beat them, eat them” seems to be the only purgative motto that these starving models feed on, literally.
And while the film might’ve benefited from an underlying “don’t hate the players, hate the game” message, such critique is subverted by Winding Refn’s mere imitation of it. For a film saturated with mirrors and reflective surfaces, it could use a little self-reflexivity. The camera, like Jesse’s almost translucent skin, has been glossed over to blind us from its obvious blemishes and critical emptiness. Its dazzling surface tries to prevent us from digging any deeper, falling squarely into the superficial and fetishistic traditions it exposes. It feels as though Winding Refn chose the fashion industry as an excuse to fully indulge in the aesthetic quality for which he has been praised. The difference is that in his previous work, the high-caliber visuals were incidental and unexpected, whereas here, beauty is the subject, the content, and the means by which these are delivered– rendering the film a mere vessel of the frivolity it displays.
The Neon Demon is ultimately the best-looking bad attempt at a horror movie so far this year. It can’t sing and cant’ dance… but it’s pretty, and I’ll be damned if it can’t make money off pretty. ■
The Neon Demon / Neon Demon│ Director: Nicolas Winding Refn│ Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham│ Camera: Natasha Braier│ Editing: Matthe Newman │ Music: Cliff Martinez│ Cast: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves│ Producer: Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval, Nicolas Winding Refn│ Production Company: Space Rocket Nation / Wild Bunch / Gaumont│Country: United States / France / Denmark│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 117 min.│ International Sales: Wild Bunch│ Festival: Cannes IFF 2016│Distribution: Gutek Film│